Discussion Group, Honk if you like city

Bob Reguly
The Next City
June 21, 1997

“IT SEEMED LIKE A GOOD IDEA AT THE TIME” is the common lament of communities that adopted a few Canada geese in the 1960s to bring picturesque wildlife to their urban jungles.

The geese took on the task with such lust that their numbers have soared to the hundreds of thousands in southern Ontario, where the problem is most acute. Regina started with just one pair, Hiawatha and Queenie, and now has 30,000 nibbling to death all the greensward, including the flower beds at the Legislature. Vancouver imported a dozen from an Ontario wildlife refuge, and now 15,000 ravage the Fraser valley.

The motivation was noble. After all, the Branta canadensis maxima is a national symbol. What more stirring than the plaintive honk of a vee of geese winging north to signal the arrival of spring and, later, southward to remind us that winter is nigh?

“In retrospect, nobody foresaw the population explosion,” says Rick McKelvey, associate manager of the Pacific Wildlife Centre in Vancouver. In cities, geese numbers explode after 20 years, increasing at 30 per cent a year and becoming nuisances: Once settled, the birds won’t go away. For a while, the municipalities bestowed their surplus geese on unsuspecting towns, but now nobody, nowhere, wants them. The search is on for other solutions.

The timid bureaucrats of Canadian cities are watching with quiet approval the brave experiment in the twin Minnesota cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul: population 25,000 Canada geese. There, too, a few pairs in the early 1960s grew to 500 in 1968, and, had many not been exported to unsuspecting states, they would number 100,000 today. Last year, to general approval, the twin cities slaughtered some of their geese and donated the meat to food banks. The state Department of Natural Resources, surprised at the lack of public outcry, plans to corral and process another 1,800 geese this fall to trim the twin cities’ goose number further.

Minnesota found that the food banks’ demand vastly outstrips supply; on a 1-to-10 scale, consumers rated the product, averaging seven pounds dressed, a tasty seven with a 100 per cent approval rating for bringing more of them to the table. Goose consumption gets a clean bill of health. Geese don’t get stuffed with hormones or other chemicals, and analyses find no detectable residues of PCBs, organochlorine pesticides, or mercury. But the slaughterhouse program does cost — bird for bird, nearly double that of turkey — because it is illegal, both in the United States and Canada, to sell migratory game birds. So taxpayers must bear the cost of capturing the birds during their summer moulting period, clipping their wings to prevent airborne escape, fattening them in grassy enclosures, and slaughtering them in the fall.

Birth of a problem

THE CITY OF REGINA WAS AMONG THE FIRST TO FALL PREY TO the goose. A local naturalist beguiled city fathers into settling a pair in the 2,300-acre Waterfall Park in 1962. “People thought it would be nice for people to see the wildlife,” says park spokesperson Irene Pisula. Local farmers donated grain to feed their offspring during the winter. Now about 3,000 of the beggars overwinter, with some 30,000 lollygagging in the summers, and signs are posted to discourage people from feeding them.

For each of the last 15 years, Regina has rounded up 300 to 500 of the geese and trucked them 500 miles north to the remote Cumberland area. But still their numbers keep growing, in spite of a program of addling — shaking eggs vigorously to kill the fetus, then putting the eggs back in the nest to stop geese from laying more. “We’ve discussed having them processed by Hutterite colonies, who raise a lot of geese, but some people think eating Canada geese is too radical a solution,” says Pisula.

In Vancouver, the original Canada geese, airlifted from Kortright Waterfowl Park near Toronto for planting in three local park refuges, now number about 15,000 — half of them in the Greater Vancouver urban environment. “The Fraser valley has reached its carrying capacity for the birds,” says goose expert McKelvey. Some suggest relocating the birds up the valley where they can be shot by fall hunters. (Minnesota had encouraged the hunting of Canada geese by increasing the daily bag limit to five from the previous two.) The geese, however, are smart. As soon as the shooting starts, they hightail it back to the safety of the cities. Fraser valley communities have talked about slaughtering and eating the geese, but the expense and fear of animal rights groups have iced the idea for now.

Meanwhile, some people have taken it on their own to reduce the 1,500 Canada geese hanging around Lost Lagoon in Vancouver’s downtown Stanley Park. “Recent immigrants are helping themselves to the protein,” McKelvey says of midnight raiders who have been sighted carrying off lumpy garbage bags whose contents honk in protest. Area municipalities now addle eggs, an ironic development. When officials first introduced the birds, they encouraged fecundity by removing new-laid eggs, tricking the parent birds into laying up to 30 eggs a year. Removed eggs were hatched in incubators.

The Vancouver goose population is still increasing, partly because Vancouver no longer exports up to 1,500 birds a year to the interior cities of Penticton, Kelowna, Vernon, and Kamloops. “There’s virtually no place in British Columbia you can put them where they don’t already have a problem with Canada geese,” McKelvey says.

Winnipeg, Regina, and Victoria are similarly astonished at the burgeoning of their introduced geese. The problem is just beginning in the Thousand Islands and in Quebec towns along the lower St. Lawrence river. One transatlantic goose export — to Buckingham Palace — met deep ingratitude. The Queen, it turned out, was not amused. Her groundskeepers reacted with alacrity to the befouling horde and simply wrung their necks, leaving a few alive as visible symbols of Commonwealth solidarity. Surprisingly, in a nation of protective societies for practically anything that flies, swims, or crawls, there was no outcry.

BACK IN 1968, BIOLOGISTS AT ONTARIO’S MINISTRY OF NATURAL RESOURCES also figured that the urbanized shores of Lakes Erie and Ontario needed some wildlife reminder of bygone days and also ignored the consequences of bringing the giant Canada goose — which had been hunted to virtual extinction by the 1920s — back from the brink.

The ministry plucked a few survivors from Toronto’s Riverdale Zoo, collected others from private aviculture hobbyists and “re-introduced” the geese — two dozen in all — to the Toronto region waterfront. Trouble was, the new domicile had never been the historic habitat of the big, plump bird with the nasty disposition. But the geese liked what they saw: plenty of park and golf club grass to feed on, few predators, and an abundance of nesting sites. As wild game birds, they were untouchable under the law. They decided to stay.

What with four to six eggs per couple — Canada geese are monogamous — those pioneering few grew to 100,000 in a decade, to 200,000 by 1987, and to 300,000 today along the shoreline from Sarnia to Oshawa. Depending on the local habitat, they now double in three to five years. Although most retreat in winter, taking a lazy, short flight just south of the Great Lakes, tens of thousands hang in year-round, are fed cereals and bread dispensed by kindly retirees and stale goods dumped by bakeries.

Canada geese have poor digestive systems, requiring them to eat almost constantly. They expel their undigested remains with metronomic regularity, about once every seven minutes while feeding, convincing many that the geese have worn out their welcome. “The main beef is that parks are ruined by their defecations, with parents complaining that kids can’t use the parks — aggressive geese protecting their nests take off after small kids — and farmers say that the geese raid their crops,” says Rick Pratt, Ontario region manager of habitat enforcement for the Canadian Wildlife Service, the government agency in overall charge of Canada geese under the Canada-U.S. Migratory Birds Convention Act. Geese convert lush public greensward to mud flats as they eat the grass down to the roots. A recent report for the Toronto-area Waterfront Regeneration Trust calls the bird “a significant wildlife nuisance” that pollutes shoreline waters with fecal coliforms, that is mainly responsible for the pollution of popular Grenadier Pond in Toronto’s west-end High Park, and that wreaks havoc on farm crops around Toronto. It blames Canada geese for 24 deaths and $200 million in aircraft damage in North America last year.

At one time, the agency annually rounded up the geese on the Toronto Islands, shipping them by chartered aircraft and truck to municipalities in Michigan, Minnesota, and New York state that had naively put in requests. The export program has ended — the last shipment, 750 birds, last year went to New Brunswick as hunting stock. But even it said, no more, thanks. With the collect-and-ship program ended, visitors to Toronto’s most popular outdoor recreation area can expect to emulate Fred Astaire in traversing the islands’ parklands.

THE GEESE REFUTE THE ADAGE THAT THERE’S NO SUCH THING as a free lunch. They know that a steady handout enables one to stay put. As wildlife technician Gordon MacPherson of the Metropolitan Toronto Region Conservation Authority puts it: “Canada geese are opportunistic. Why fly to James Bay where it’s cold, there are predators and the food’s not as good when you can hang out in the Toronto area? The winters are shorter, there’re no predators, and the people feed you.”

In contrast to the goose surplus down south, Indian settlements in the far north worry about a decline in their indigenous goose flocks, a different subspecies that migrates to the James Bay lowlands. These migrants use perilous flyways through predator-filled boreal forests that skirt Southern Ontario far to the east and west, whereas the Toronto geese fly in armadas north to James Bay in late May and early June through lowlands that offer long sight lines. The plentiful Toronto geese then take food from the mouths of the local, smaller species of Canada geese.

Crowding themselves out of Lake Ontario waterfront land, the Toronto welfare geese, when flying north to inland conservation areas, have become a traffic hazard at some of the highway interchanges. The geese are also a hazard off the road — when nesting, they chase dogs and attack people who sometimes fall and break a leg when running away. To curb the aggressive hordes, the conservation authority is taking some habitat-modifying steps. Since geese fear tall grass that may hide a fox or a coyote, the authority is planting shrubs and letting the grass grow high along the water’s edge to limit their grazing area.

Greater Toronto Area communities already spend $350,000 a year on goose management. In Mississauga, a trained sheep dog harasses the birds away from picnic spots, whereas other municipalities oil their olive-colored eggs: The geese try to hatch the suffocated offspring until it is too late to lay another clutch. But to start a population decline, at least 72 per cent of the eggs have to be destroyed. Performing vasectomies on geese is effective — the males don’t cheat on their mate — but too costly at $130 a bird.

The waterfront trust report recommends oiling eggs, plus modifying open spaces as deterrents, plus harassment of feeding geese (fireworks, non-toxic chemical repellents on grass), plus hefty fines on people who feed the geese, plus “harvesting” the geese for human consumption. Though the cost of donating geese to food banks is expensive — $25 to $30 a bird — it could pay in the long run, if a British report is at all applicable here: it pegs the damage Canada geese do to London parks at a hefty $85 per bird per year.

Across the country, the emerging goose consensus says, “eat the geese,” either through the slaughter-and-donate solution or by relaxing hunting restrictions. The Canadian Wildlife Service favors chasing the birds from the inner cities to the boonies, where they can be hunted, and increasing the bag limits.

As the Minnesota summary report of its slaughter program states: “Processing of geese for human consumption has proven to be an accepted and effective technique for nuisance goose control.” In less bureaucratic language: Bon appétit!

City folk are getting gulled, too

WHILE CANADA GEESE ARE A MAJOR HASSLE IN SOME PARTS of the country, the ring-billed gull is a bigger — and growing — problem from the prairies to the Maritimes. It, too, was once close to extinction because settlers ate their eggs and sought their plumage for bedding. To avoid its disappearance, the Canadian government protected it in 1916, and the gull increased in number at a desultory pace until the 1960s. Then, thanks to man’s greed, this yellow-footed gull with the black band around its bill became a pest everywhere.

The population explosion followed a seemingly unrelated chain of events. First, commercial overfishing and chemical pollution almost wiped out the Great Lakes’ trout and pickerel (the blue pickerel in Lake Erie became extinct), leading to a great increase in alewives and smelt, their prey. The gulls then fed on the alewives and smelt, producing offspring galore. But the feast would not last for long. Governments soon introduced hatchery salmon to please sport fishermen. These big Pacific fish, engorged to 40-pound trophies, muscled out the gulls, forcing them to look far afield for sustenance. They found it in the dinner leftovers tossed into landfill sites and fast-food dumpsters. Many gulls left the country for the city.

Omnivorous and opportunistic, gulls begat more chicks than the garbage dumps could support. So they began raiding farms, eating cherries off the trees and tomatoes ripening on the vine — their favorite farm foods — plus corn, peas, beans, and even onions. They learned to roost in trees, a first for the species. The Canadian Wildlife Service notes: “The diverse diet is the result of the ring-billed gull’s agility and adaptability: It can plunge dive for fish, hawk for insects in the air, follow the plow looking for earthworms and grubs, scrounge french fries at fast-food outlets, hunt for voles in the fields, and forage at garbage dumps amid dump trucks and bulldozers.” The ring bills are supremely adaptable, unlike their kin species, the herring gulls, whose numbers are declining because they stick to eating fish.

The ring bills also ate small songbirds, wiped out the piping plover at Long Point on Lake Erie by raiding their nests, and elbowed aside the long-settled colonies of common and Caspian terns. The ravishing hordes then spread northward past Sudbury and New Liskeard, to northwest Lake Nipigon at the beginning of the 1990s, then even farther west to Lake of the Woods, and downstream to Quebec and the gulf.

ONE CANADIAN WILDLIFE SERVICE REPORT STATES the gulls’ hazards to human health include histoplasmosis, caused by a fungus inhaled from the spores in fecal deposits, botulism, which is transmitted by contact with gull feces, and salmonellosis, caused by a bacteria spread by gulls feeding at garbage dumps and sewage disposal sites. Gulls can also cause swimmer’s itch. The gulls are natural carriers of schistosome trematodes, a parasite expelled in their excretions. After the parasite burrows into a human, it encysts and dies, leaving tiny, itchy red sores.

On occasion, offices in Oshawa and Nanticoke have closed for the day — fumes from gulls’ defecations, sucked into air intakes, caused workers to gag.

“In Ontario,” says the CWS report, “the gulls pose a threat to flight safety; cause ruinous damage to crops; are a potential health hazard to people, cattle and fowl; and are an unacceptable nuisance in many parks, marinas, beaches, playgrounds, and other public areas.”

In the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence river region down to New Brunswick, the gulls have exploded from an estimated 27,000 in 1960 to nearly 1.5 million today. In Toronto, the ring-billed gull soared from 20 nesting pairs in 1973 to 60,000 pairs today at Tommy Thompson Park. Aware that the problem can only get worse, federal, provincial, and municipal authorities have been meeting to discuss bird control solutions for the Greater Toronto Area, home to the nation’s most acute goose-gull problem. Like the goose, the ring bills are a protected species, and it is illegal to harm them.

AIRPORTS HIRE FALCONERS TO SCARE AWAY THE GULLS; factories mount sentinel plastic owls and erect near-invisible fishing monofilament grids to discourage alighting; farmers use banger, screamer, and whistler pyrotechnics to harass the birds, or just blow them away.

At Metropolitan Toronto’s huge Britannia dump, officials tried a tactic to deter the gulls, with some initial success. Officials captured and caged several gulls to frighten away others with their cries of distress. But the imprisoned gulls, discovering they liked the regular meals dished out by the dump staff, soon settled into contented silence. For a while, the custodians tried to replace the caged gulls with batches of fresh ones; then they gave up in a flurry.

At Toronto city hall, authorities tried fishing lines to deter the winged beggars from speckling its broad esplanade with their droppings and from hassling lunch-hour brown baggers. But the gulls soon learned to land outside and stroll in. Ontario Place, Toronto’s sprawling waterfront summer playground, has installed a monofilament grid, like a giant gill net, to dissuade the raucous, ever-hungry gulls.

At Toronto’s Leslie Street Spit, until recently home to the world’s second-biggest ring-billed gull colony after Big Sur, California, officials tried stuffed real owls, but they weren’t as effective as a pair of coyotes who have taken up residence there with obvious relish. Then conservation authority staff used falcons and pyrotechnics to herd the birds into ever-smaller areas. It succeeded for a while: the count dropped to below 50,000 pairs after hitting a high of 80,000 in the mid-1980s, but with government cutbacks, the number soared last year to about 60,000. In any event, harassing the gulls only succeeds in shunting them elsewhere. Some Leslie spit gulls muscled in on the docile mallards at the Toronto horticultural showplace, Edwards Gardens, to the distress of the society ladies who frequent the place.

Last year, the Canadian Wildlife Service, which administers the gull protection program on behalf of the federal minister of environment, granted 69 permits to kill gulls in southern Ontario, most to tomato growers, with 10 permits aimed at gulls nesting on office building or factory roofs where they’re safe from their natural predators — foxes, raccoons, coyotes, great horned owls, skunks which eat their eggs, and garter snakes that swallow newly-hatched young.

The wildlife service advocates gunning the gulls down, “Many wildlife organizations would probably agree to a [gun] control program if it were properly justified, biologically sound, reasonably humane, and efficiently run,” its report states. More realistically, it notes that “It would be impossible to run a gun control program without criticism from some animal rights movements.”

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